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Deus Caritas Est is clearly of two parts: the second part, which deals with the nature of Christian charity from a theological, spiritual and practical standpoint, the seeds of which were planted during the previous pontificate; and the first part, which frames the subject by defining and exploring "love."

(Has anyone seen Quiz Show? That previous paragraph reminded me of it – Charles van Doren saying, "I’ll take the third part first, Jack…" Anyway.)

It works. There are some points, particularly in the first section, that seem rather rushed and imply much more possible elucidation, which I understand, from comments on another blog, I think, makes sense because there’s much of this that Benedict elucidated in The Yes of Jesus Christ. But taken as a whole, it’s a thought-provoking read in which we benefit, once again, from this marvelous theologian who’s also gifted with the ability to teach.

As has been widely reported, Benedict’s first task is to rescue eros, to help us look at it clearly and understand the ultimate direction of its energy and yearning, and to see how it becomes destructive when left undirected. This, he points out, is the gift of Biblical faith, beginning in the Old Testament and culminating in Christ, showing how eros and agape are two dimensions of love, fulfill each other and become skewed without each other.

I found the treatment of Jesus simple and striking. In him, the hints and signs present in human experience, in the revelation of divine and human nature through the experience of Israel, merges and finds perfect, dramatic, compelling expression. In him, divine love shows his face, and eros and agape are embodied – the passionate love of God is poured out on the cross – Benedict points to the "pierced side" of Christ as the beginning of contemplation of God’s love – and, so importantly, is shared with us in the Eucharist.

In the Eucharist, we are joined, not just to God, but to others as well, and in this Communion, immersed in the love of God, we see the world with his eyes, the eyes of love.

From there, Benedict moves on to charity, making some rather clear statements about the distinction between seeking just social structures, which is the task of politics, and sharing the love of Jesus with those in need, which is the proper task of the Church. He writes that faith has a role to play in working to a just society, as people of faith are engaged in the process and lend the clarifying gaze of faith to it, but he is firm that there is nothing to apologize for in prioritizing charity as the function of the Body of Christ and its institutions  – it is what Jesus calls us to do and be, and where love calls us to be – in person-to-person contact with those whose bodies and souls are suffering.

To me, the most interesting point of this section was what will doubtlessly be referenced as Benedict’s Augustinian pessimism – he says outright that those who carry out the Church’s charitable activity "must not be inspired by ideologies aimed at improving the world…" (33), and should be wary of at trying to do "what God’s governance of the world apparently cannot: fully resolve every problem." (36) It gives those of us reared in the "we’re helping build the Kingdom" mentality something to think about, that’s certain.

It’s pretty bracing and clarifying, and I’m placing bets that this will be the most contentious part of the document. Benedict say, additionally, that professional competence is fine, but is not the standard by which charity operates – person-to-person compassionate love is. He says quite directly that the "growing secularism of many Christians engaged in charitable work" is a problem.

What does this mean? Does this mean don’t try to change things? To just hand out water and be done with it? Far from it. The great saints he mentions at the end of his encyclical almost all were responsible for starting movements and institutions that changed things – that changed the way children were educated, that changed the way the poor were treated and thought of, that changed the way that the impoverished ill and dying were treated.

No, that’s not it. It’s that, as Benedict begins this section by saying, there is massive suffering in our world today, it’s suffering that we have no right to ignore because we know about it instantly, and it’s suffering that we have no excuse to neglect because we have better means to help alleviate many points of suffering than we ever have.

However, when "justice" is emphasized as the prime way in which a Christian can help, and "justice" in particular as understood to be political action …the suffering still suffer because if we are satisfied with writing letters or hoping for change, we are, bluntly, failing to do what Jesus told us to do. (Mt. 25)

(The argument can be made that there are, for example, many ways to feed the hungry, some of which involved necessary structural changes. But, Benedict says, while the Church may advise and discuss and shed light on the problems, and Christians must be involved politically to bring greater justice, that is simply not the Church’s primary mandate, as Church. The risk is that in focusing on what it is not equipped to do, it begins to neglect what it is equipped, mandated, and nourished by the love of Jesus to do.)

It is persons that are at the center here. From the very beginning of the document, as Benedict explains what faith is, in very CL kind of lingo, I believe:

We have come to believe in God’s love: in these words the Christian can express the fundamental decision of his life. Being Christian is not the result of an ethical choice or a lofty idea, but the encounter with an event, a person, which gives life a new horizon and a decisive direction.

And it ends with a person – you and me as part of the Body of Christ, having encountered the total love of God in Jesus, being graced over and over again as we meet him in Eucharist, being joined every more intimately to our brothers and sisters through that same Eucharist, and not only able, but moved by the Spirit to live in that reality in which eros and agape merge, nourish each other, and it becomes simply who we are, because we are in Christ.

Argue with me – that’s good! Cite your favorite passages from this encyclical, those that jostled you, that jarred your conscience, that you (gasp) disagreed with, that you’ll print out and tape over your computer screen.

And I’ll have more to say about the context, the big picture, tomorrow.

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